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Trip 36 — Eysturoy Walk

Day 4: Norðragøta to Leirvík and back
Thursday, 22 June 2023

Today: 23988 steps/18.71 km/11.63 mi/3h 34m
Total: 112574 steps/85.06 km/52.85 mi/17h 21m

On my second day in Norðragøta, I explored the peninsula on which the town lies. At the other end, across a mountain, is Leirvík. It's now reachable from Norðragøta by a three-kilometer tunnel, but the old mountain road still exists. It takes almost an hour to walk the road, and because few people still drive it, it's a peaceful and easy walk.

When I left this morning, I couldn't see the top of the mountain through the fog. By the time I started along the road, I couldn't see any of the mountain. I was venturing into an unknown mass of white.

An oystercatcher announced my departure. A little ways along, a track led down to a natural spring, where one can enjoy water that in peak summer reaches the scorching temperature of 65°F. I didn't feel like making the downhill and uphill trek, and even the sheep couldn't be bothered; one preferred to submit to rinsing its head in its companion's pee.

The fog lifted a bit, enough for me to see across to Fuglafjørður to the northwest and the southern end of the island of Kalsoy to the northeast. The road followed a bulge in the cliff and then gently bent southeast toward Leirvík.

Someone on Google Maps with a sense of humor — and a few people joining in on the joke with their reviews — listed a site along the descent into town as "National Museum of Concrete Leirvík." I was hoping it would be real, but it was just a work site, where someone gave me a smile and a hello and then tramped back through the slop and into the building. I wonder how many people ask for a guided tour.

Besides, no museum on Eysturoy opens five days a week at 8 a.m. and on weekends at 10, as Google Maps suggested for my lesson in concrete. Leirvík's real museum, the Boat and Art Museum, is open just five hours a week, and they didn't coincide with my time in town.

I took a long walk east, past Leirvík's own seamen's memorial, almost as far as the road goes. It does not connect back to Norðragøta, sadly, but it did bring me up near the peninsula's eastern end, about as far east as one can walk on Eysturoy. Ahead of me, like three giant matching chess pawns strategically arranged with their heads in the clouds, with nearly identical slopes and terrain, were the mountains forming the bottom of Kalsoy, part of Bordoy (the island that includes the substantial town of Klaksvík), and, behind them, in the middle, the southern end of Kunoy, an island with just two villages and about 150 people. A third settlement, abandoned in 1929 after a fishing accident claimed most of the male population, was the birthplace of the lyricist of the Faroese national anthem.

I walked along an upper road back into town, past the football pitch and the pine grove called Limmilund. These were the first trees I'd seen in the Faroes, apart from a few planted next to houses. I descended past a school with children playing cheerfully outside — Leirvík seemed to have a lot of kids — to the town's only restaurant, attached to a bowling alley near the tunnel entrance.

After a ham schnitzel, I made my way back to Norðragøta. There were three ways to do this. If it hadn't been so foggy, I might have taken the path over the mountain. Albert had said it was easier than the trail I'd taken from Hellurnar. It even had stairs at its steepest parts. But with its upper half invisible, I didn't dare.

Another possibility, which I entertained probably for longer than I should have, was to walk the tunnel. Hadn't Mattias done it? But he'd been out of sorts. Albert had done it, too, "but it was late at night, when I was drunk, and there wasn't much traffic then." If I could be assured of a proper walkway and ventilation, I might have. But the thought seemed creepy.

So back along the road I went. I recognized some of the sheep. They recognized me, too, and we took pictures, exchanged phone numbers, and found each other on social media, promising to meet up whenever one of us was in the other's area.

On the Norðragøta side, the clouds had dispersed enough to reveal the mountaintop, and it had become a bright day, warm enough for me to shed my jacket and sweater and go about in short sleeves. I had just enough time to visit the Blásastova, the village museum, a cluster of seven turf-roofed buildings that take guests back to the Middle Ages.

People have lived on the site since 630, possibly much earlier. One famous resident was Tróndur í Gøtu, a Viking who lived from 945 to 1035. He put a curse on the row of stones that formed the foundation of his home, demanding that they never be moved. When someone tried to shift one to the side to allow his cow to pass, he died that night. When the British set about blasting them with dynamite to drive a tank up the hill during World War II, they destroyed the adjoining house but the stones stayed firmly in place.

Most of the buildings on the site date from the 1830s. These include one of nine wooden churches left in the Faroes.

"This is the fifth church built on this spot," my guide said. "Every two hundred years, a storm blew the church away. This one was built in eighteen thirty-three. Soon we'll celebrate two hundred years."

"A good reason to celebrate," I said, thinking that advancements in architecture boded well for the church's future.

"This church is used just once a year, on the thirteenth day of Christmas, January sixth. Now there's the new church, which was built in nineteen ninety-five."

I'd passed it on the way to Brimborg. It looked modern and bright, with angular roofs that pointed to the sky like prisms.

"There's a guy down the road. His grandfather was the deacon here. He was the only person other than the queen to touch the king's butt."

"How did that happen?"

"When the king and queen came to visit, the king was very eager to visit the church. He started to rush in. But the deacon grabbed him from the back by putting his hand down his pants, and he pulled him away, saying, 'Ladies first.'"

He showed me the farmhouse, where a fire used to burn daily to warm the women who were knitting, and the men who joined them at the end of the day, and everyone else, because there were always people in the living room. At one end of the house was a bedroom, where the groom's parents shared a bed in a cubicle next to another that housed the bride's parents.

"The bride's and groom's parents shared a room?" I asked.

"Yes. As far as I know, there were no instances of them killing each other."

This was the house of a wealthy person, and at the opposite end of the house was a bedroom for the traveling priest. "He went from village to village, spending a week or so in each place, so he probably came here three or four times a year."

I was also shown a boathouse, where a five-person boat on display looked to have capacity for many more than that — but I hadn't accounted for the need for space for the fishing baskets. And the museum shop was formerly a fisherman's house, built in 1904 with the extra money that had come in from the recent establishment of a true fishing industry. The house had an open-door policy for all fishermen in the village who needed housing and those who were visiting from elsewhere.

I returned to Brimborg for dinner. I almost had the Sashi steak again. But there were two off-menu items that sounded interesting: blue-whiting soup and lok lak, a beef stir-fry that reflected the heritage of the chefs, who came from Cambodia. Brimborg may be the world's only Faroese-Cambodian restaurant.

And so I consumed my share, Albert said, of the 650,000 tons of blue whiting harvested each year. "Most gets made into fish meal and oil, but some gets served whole. The sales went way up when they found a way to remove the bones with a machine instead of by hand. It's a small fish" — the fillet fit comfortably in my soup bowl — "but the bones aren't small enough that you can eat them, like with sardines."

And of the lok lak: "It's high-quality beef cooked in a fermented oyster sauce, ketchup, and sweet chili sauce. We also add palm sugar and top it with an egg, onion, and radish."

I never knew where the conversation was going to go with Albert, but I was along for the ride. He gestured outside to a boat being rowed by four people, with a coxswain.

"Do you see that boat?" he asked. "Rowing is the national sport. Well, except for football."

"Yes. Like crew?"

"Yes, but not like your crew. Your boats are small and aerodynamic and made of plastic. Ours weigh four hundred fifty kilos and are made of wood. And one boat costs thirty thousand dollars. Like the price of a car. Well, a small car in the Faroes. Not a used car. You can get a used car for twelve thousand. Well, a pretty good used car. If you want a junky one, that barely works, you can get it for four thousand. But that's here. In the USA you can probably get one for less."

Somehow we'd gotten from the rowing practice outside our window to the prices of beaters in the United States. "I don't know," I said. "I've never owned a car."

"Right. In New York you don't need one. I can't imagine people who live in New York and have cars."

"I don't understand it either. At least not in the middle of the city."

He brought out binoculars and left them with me so that I could inspect the mountains. The clouds had broken, leaving the sun to cast warm rods of horizontal light on the peaks pointing toward Bordoy. When nature's pieces were in sync, the Faroes vied for the world's most beautiful place.

Guðrun and her husband were the owners of my Airbnb apartment. They lived in the house above and invited me for tea and chocolates after dinner. They had been married in the wooden church in Norðragøta in 1986. Guðrun was 66 years old and already had a great-granddaughter. She was a teacher of Faroese, Danish, gymnastics, religion, and embroidery; her husband had been a boat engineer but now had a trucking company. Guðrun had been on the verge of retirement, but they had begged her to come back for one more year.

Last year, Guðrun biked from Klaksvík to Paris with almost 50 people to raise money for children with cancer. They rode 1,357 kilometers in eight days, eight hours a day. The longest day was 240 kilometers, about 150 miles.

"Would you do it again?" I asked.

"If I were fifty, I would," she said. "But next, I want to walk the Camino de Santiago."

Can't go wrong with a good walk, I say.

Go on to day 5